Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal: Sheer Will From Wilshere

Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Before the game…
I was asked by People.co.uk to compare Aston Villa to a cartoon character. I suggested Spongebob Squarepants, as he’s young, full of energy, but ultimately not very good at football.

I was wrong. They didn’t have much energy.

Wilshere’s contribution was Ramsey-esque…
In the Welshman’s absence, Jack has really stepped up. Many will point to the fact he’s getting a run in his preferred position, but I also think he’s relishing the added responsibility.

Whenever he praised Ramsey’s heroics earlier this season, I always felt he was masking a nagging envy. There was a lot of, “he’s a great example” and “I hope I can follow what he’s doing”, but the subtext was clear: Wilshere wanted a bit of the glory. Now, finally, he’s getting it.

Prior to the kickoff of the 2013/14 campaign, Wilshere had just five Arsenal goals to his name. However, the goal he scored against Villa was his fifth of this season. You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out what that means, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In just half a season, Wilshere has doubled his career goals tally for Arsenal. Ramsey’s extraordinary feats have clouded Wilshere’s improving efficiency.

The fact that moments after scoring his goal he won the ball back and created the second tells you everything about his character. Many players would have been content to sit back and soak up the glory for a bit. Not Jack: he was straight back on the front foot. That competitive spirit is invaluable.

Per Mertesacker loves his job…
His job is to defend, and he clearly adores it. For too long Arsenal had defenders who aspired to be footballers. Mertesacker, on the other hand, has embraced his fate.

He’s under no illusions: he couldn’t be a No. 10. With his physical and technical limitations, centre-back is the only position in which he could realistically make a career as a professional footballer. Almost because of that, he is absolutely dedicated to his craft. Unlike the likes of Ozil, he can’t get by simply on talent. He is a student of the game. Scrap that: he’s a professor. A don.

His reaction to conceding the Benteke goal was fabulous. He was furious with Santi Cazorla for ceding possession in such a needless manner. We saw a flash of the rage that Mertesacker turned on Ozil when he failed to applaud the away fans a few weeks back. Behind the meek exterior is the same competitive spirit that drives Wilshere.

The decision not to bring Podolski on will get people talking…

…largely due to his clearly disappointed response.

There’s a few things to say on this. The first is that it’s entirely reasonable and normal for a player to be disappointed at not being used. The second is that Arsene probably made the right choice: when you’re holding on to a lead, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s energy is certainly more useful than Podolski’s powerful shooting.

However, the noise surrounding Podolski’s uncertain future has not been generated by one isolated incident. It’s been clear since the start of 2013 that Arsene Wenger has issues with selecting the German.

The fact that teenager Serge Gnabry was selected to start over Podolski seems far more significant than the fact he didn’t make it off the bench. As a man with more than 100 caps to his name, Podolski wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t a little irked to have fallen behind the upstart Gnabry in the pecking order.

Arsene has thrown down quite the gauntlet to Podolski here. As I wrote in this piece for ESPN, I fear it could end acrimoniously in the summer. However, perhaps it’s the mother of all motivation techniques. If Podolski is handed an opportunity from the start against Fulham, he’ll certainly feel he has a point to prove.

This wasn’t one of those “mark of champions” performances…
It wasn’t professional. It was sloppy. Arsenal should have had this game wrapped up, but instead slacked off in the second half and allowed Villa back in to it. Given how poor Villa were for most of the game, anything other than three points would have been something of a disaster.

However, we got there in the end. We stumbled but we didn’t slip. Arsenal are back on top of the table. Just how I like it.

Arsenal must find a way to replace Theo Walcott’s goals

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It’s rare that a piece of Arsenal news shocks me. We live, lest we forget, in a world where Nicklas Bendtner has claimed to have the potential to be the best footballer in the world, and in which Emmanuel Eboue once dressed as a tiger.

However, when I saw the news that Theo Walcott would miss the remainder of the season and this summer’s World Cup, I was genuinely taken aback.

When Theo Walcott first pulled up against Spurs, I was immediately concerned. His knee bulged in that unnatural way that one associates with cruciate ligament injuries. However, in his post-match press conference Arsene Wenger played down any major fears. The talk in the press room was that Walcott would be out for a few weeks at worst.

Some Arsenal fans were unwilling to countenance even that. It seems hugely ironic now, but I saw The Guardian’s David Hytner being pilloried on Twitter for publishing an article saying Walcott “could miss four weeks”. The trolls accused him of jumping the gun. They said he ought to wait for the scan rather than posting speculative news. How right they were. And yet how wrong.

The truth is far worse than anyone could have feared. The official statement says Walcott will miss “at least” six months. In reality, it could be closer to a year.

I’m actually surprised by how gutted I am for him. He’s not a player I have a particularly strong emotional attachment too. He has probably caused me as much frustration as joy.

However, I have huge admiration for the way his game has evolved over the past 18 months. As my friend Tobi said, his head finally seemed to have caught up with his feet. Walcott has overcome criticism and some fairly serious injuries to become a bona fide star of the Premier League. He had earned the prize of a legitimate title challenge and a World Cup in Brazil.

Ah, the World Cup. It’s not Arsenal’s problem, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for a guy who will miss out on a second World Cup in succession. Theo plainly loves playing for England, and it will crush him to know that, despite being selected for one aged 17, he will have no chance of playing on world football’s greatest stage until he is 29. It pains me to say it, but by then Walcott’s pace and subsequently his star may be fading — especially with the added complication of a cruciate injury.

It’s often said that it’s tragic that the likes of George Best and Ryan Giggs never got to play in the World Cup. I get that. However, they had their chance to qualify like everyone else. What about playing through a qualification campaign, earning the right to grace that stage, and then being cruelly robbed of it by a freak injury? That’s a tragedy of it’s own.

As for Arsenal? Well, it’s an enormous blow. Whenever I allowed myself to envisage Arsenal winning this season’s Premier League, our success was always contingent on the availability of our best players.

I’ve tried to work out whose injury would hit the team harder. I’ve come up with a list of three: Wojciech Szczesny, Per Mertesacker, and Olivier Giroud. As important as players like Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil might be, we have others capable of doing a similar job.

Walcott offers something special: goals.

Replacing Walcott in his starting position on the right wing is not that difficult. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has returned to training and will soon be ready to bring his direct running and skill to the side. In the meantime, young Serge Gnabry looks more than capable of bridging the gap.

However, neither Chamberlain or Gnabry is likely to offer a goal threat to match that of Walcott. Despite missing two months with another injury, Theo’s goal tally is bettered only by Giroud and Ramsey, and his recent form suggested he was preparing to build on his total of six thus far. With Giroud’s prolific start to the season now a distant memory, Walcott’s presence in the side became increasingly important.

Theo loves goals. Some accused him of being overly selfish against Spurs, but the truth is there are few players in our squad who share that unbridled desire to see the ball in the back of net. Even our resident centre-forward, Olivier Giroud, can be unduly generous at times.

Walcott’s determination to be recognised as a striker sees him repeatedly putting himself in a position to score. Look at his brace against West Ham: the first was a tame effort, but he at least had the self-confidence to take the shot on and test the goalkeeper. As for the second goal, how many other players in this Arsenal team would make a lung-bursting sprint to stick their head on a cross? Not too many.

Wenger will doubtless talk about ‘internal solutions’. There is one: Lukas Podolski. The manager has always been loathe to field both Walcott and Podolski on the flanks. However, Walcott’s absence might allow him to rebalance his midfield and include the German international regularly on the left-hand side. Although he lacks Walcott’s blistering pace, he does possess a nose for goal and a fine shot.

However, Wenger must also be considering a move in the transfer market. Prior to this incident, I received word that Arsenal had made tentative enquiries about signing a diminutive dribbling winger. I was dismissive of the news, but wonder if that interest might now intensify.

I’m not sure it will. Arsenal have plenty of wingers. Arsenal don’t necessarily need to replace Walcott, but they do need to replace his goals.

Arsene Wenger must scour the market for someone who is capable of making up that shortfall of 8-10 goals created by Walcott’s absence. They might be a winger or attacking midfielder in the ‘Draxler’ mould, or they might be a supplementary centre-forward.

The truth is that in recent weeks Theo has almost been playing as a second striker, so acquiring a front-man still seems like the priority.

The season might be over for Theo, but it’s not for Arsenal. Arsene Wenger must act fast to ensure that the rupture of Walcott’s ligament does not also precipitate the tearing up of Arsenal’s title dreams.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Spurs: I Sher-Woodn’t want to be a Tottenham fan

Arsenal 2 – 0 Tottenham
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I’ll admit, I was worried about the XI Arsene picked…
Before the game, Arsene said he’d treat this just like an important league game. He was fibbing. Had this been a league game, Szczesny, Mertesacker and Ozil would all have started. Perhaps Olivier Giroud would even have been roused from his sickbed.

Instead, all four were absent from the starting XI, and two from the matchday squad entirely.

There were two areas that particularly troubled me. The first was at centre-back: the pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen has never looked particularly secure. The first half showed that fielding these two talented but impetuous defenders does make us a little vulnerable in-behind – Vermaelen was twice turned when trying to nick the ball early. However, any anxiety was relatively short-lived: a cut knee forced Vermaelen off at half-time, with Mertesacker coming on to replace the Belgian.

My other concern was the goalkeeper. Although Lukasz Fabianski’s recent performances have been relatively solid, I’d be lying if I said I’d entirely let go of my perception of him as something of a calamity waiting to happen – as my annotated team-sheet will show.

My fears were misplaced…

Arsenal were never really tested. Fabianski made one decent save to deny Christian Eriksen, but other than that Arsenal looked very secure. Emmanuel Adebayor, whose good form going in to the game was cause for dark premonitions, spent the match tucked firmly in Laurent Koscielny’s back-pocket. Roberto Soldado, meanwhile, is truly the heir apparent to Helder Postiga in Tottenham’s Hall of Infamy.

To be honest, Tottenham made it very easy for us.

I think Tim Sherwood’s positive impact at Tottenham has been hugely overblown. He’s only won three of his first six games. He drew at home with an out-of-sorts West Brom, and lost an important Capital One Cup tie at home to relegation-threatened West Ham.

I don’t know if it’s because he’s a young English manager, but the praise he’s received seems hugely disproportionate when compared to his actual tangible impact. The BBC have even chosen to conveniently overlook the West Ham game and call this the first defeat of his time at Tottenham:

I’m convinced that a Spurs side managed by AVB would have given us a better game today – in fact, they did just that, back in August.

Sherwood has been lauded for his revolutionary introduction of an old school 4-4-2 formation. However, today was the first occasion on which his system was tested against a quality five-man midfield. It might be good enough to beat mid-table sides like Manchester United, but it’s not going to be good enough to beat the Arsenal.

Another bizarre thing about Sherwood is that while he has overhauled the team, he’s chosen to retain arguably the most catastrophic element of AVB’s team: the kamikaze high line.

It was telling that Wenger opted to pick a three diminutive speedsters up top in Gnabry, Walcott and Cazorla. He had probably watched Liverpool’s tiny trio of Suarez, Coutinho and Sterling demolish Tottenham a matter of weeks before.

While I’m on it, Tim Sherwood is a spectacularly inarticulate man…
I know I’ll be accused of snobbery here, but I don’t care. After the match, Sherwood claimed, “We was not not outnumbered in midfield, we wasn’t”. Seems like he’s stuck in his own double-negative spiral.

Gnabry was outstanding…
Starting Fabianski felt like a gamble. Starting Gnabry felt like a declaration of faith. That faith was repaid with a storming display. For an 18 year-old, it’s his football intelligence that really takes your breath away.

Amid all the chatter about the Januzaj lad at United, you might forget that other club’s are even allowed to have exciting youngsters. Apparently if they don’t have even the slightest chance of playing for England, they’re not as interesting to our national press. Nevertheless, I can’t see many more promising prospects than Gnabry around – and he doesn’t dive. While I’m at it: if he played for a club with a midfield as weak as Moyes’, he’d probably be starting every week too. As it is, he is in competition with the likes of Cazorla and Ozil for a regular place.

Further reading: Serge Gnabry comes of age as Arsenal see of Spurs

Rosicky…
…deserved that goal. He probably deserves a new deal, too. Arsenal will face competition from the MLS and elsewhere for his services in 2014/15, but I’d be delighted to see him stay with the club. You won’t find many 33-year olds who could race away from Danny Rose quite so effectively. He’s like Peter Pan. Or maybe Benjamin Button. Maybe eventually he will regress in to being a weird little baby old person. Who knows? But I want to see it happen. At Arsenal.

Further reading: Super Tom Rosicky Shines Against Spurs

Theo Walcott looked impressive as a centre-forward…
His finishing was a little off, but he showed great movement and a willingness to take on the physical elements of the role. On the admittedly limited evidence of the past two games, he’s a far better bet for the position than Lukas Podolski.

As for the whole stretcher-based controversy, Spurs want to be careful throwing money at Theo – they’ve already chucked away £100m in the summer transfer market.

Arsenal saw out the game in relative comfort…
My overall thought watching this match was that gap between the two teams seems to have widened significantly in the first-half of this season. This was the most one-sided derby victory for some time.

The Fourth Round beckons, and I hope we give the FA Cup some real focus this year. It’d be a massive thing to reach the final or, God forbid, win it. The players seemed to flourish away from the weekly pressure of the Premier League, too – this was our best performance in weeks.

Arsenal have nine days rest now before an awkward-looking trip to Aston Villa, and the resumption of Premier League duties.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff: We have forgotten how to play without a target man

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Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The Emirates was a pretty gloomy place in the first-half…
…and not just because over the overcast sky that shrouded the ground in a wash of grey.
Arsenal’s first-half performance was poor. Both the crowd and the team were subdued. At its best, the relationship between those two entities is one of mutual provocation, each spurring the other on. On this occasion, neither side did much to elucidate a response from the other. The fans were probably hungover, and the players plain tired. I love the festive period but when you look at the number of muscular injuries being picked up across the league, fatigue is clearly a problem.

The one moment of levity in the gloomy first-half was provided by Bacary Sagna…
Arsenal were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position just outside the penalty area, and Sagna was somehow given permission to take it. Unfortunately, his curled strike hit the wall.
On the serious side, one has to wonder how on Earth that came to pass in a team also containing Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. I suppose one could make the argument that as a player who crosses regularly, Sagna is well practised at putting curl and dip on the ball.
However, Cazorla and Arteta were first-choice set-piece takers at Malaga and Everton respectively. Surely the Arsenal dead-ball jinx can not have struck them so severely that they have now been superseded by Sagna?

Jack Wilshere was a bright spark…
In the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 role. He flourished. This performance was reminiscent of the all-action display he gave against Swansea in last season’s FA Cup. On that occasion, it was universally declared that Wilshere was “back”.

That turned out to be a little hasty, so I’ll refrain from such proclamations today.

This performance was simply another reminder of Wilshere’s undoubted talent. The assist for Walcott’s goal was, in particular, sublime. However, there have been plenty of such reminders this season. One immediately thinks of Wilshere’s glorious goal against Norwich, or his curled effort against Marseille.

His problem is not talent. His problem is consistency. One hopes that time and regular football will enable him to overcome that troublesome hurdle.

I don’t blame Podolski for his poor display…
I was one of those who was hopeful that Podolski could provide cover for Olivier Giroud at centre-forward. On the evidence of this game, that isn’t going to be the case.

Podolski and Giroud are very different types of striker. They require different types of service, and a different style of approach play. Podolski is an instinctive finisher who comes alive in and around the penalty area. Giroud is a tireless target man, who is prepared to run in to the channels and play with his back to goal.

For Podolski to thrive as a centre-forward, Arsenal would need to adapt their game. Judging by today’s performance, we’re in no hurry to do that.

It could be successful. Both Liverpool and Chelsea play without what you would call a traditional ‘target man’. Chelsea are a great example: like Arsenal, they play with three diminutive attack midfielders. However, they do not require a hulking great striker in order for those players to function. They regularly field the nippy Samuel Eto’o or the slight Fernando Torres. The player with the most obvious similarities to Giroud, Demba Ba, barely gets a look-in. The powerful Romelu Lukaku was sent out on loan.

However, Arsenal appear to have forgotten how to play without a traditional no. 9. It’s odd, especially when you consider that for so many years Arsene Wenger was criticised for his refusal to deploy a conventional striker.

The Invincibles team of 2003-04 arguably pioneered the whole “false nine” thing before anyone even knew what it was. With Thierry Henry drifting out to the left, and Dennis Bergkamp dropping in to midfield, Arsenal’s varied goal threat came with stealth and surprise. SKY lazily labelled it a 4-4-2 and we all bought it, but in truth there was no central pivotal striker.

In recent years, that has changed. Arsene Wenger, the man who signed Mark Hateley for Monaco, has renewed his love affair with the powerful centre-forward. Emmanuel Adebayor, Marouane Chamakh and most recently Giroud have heralded a return to playing with a more traditional type of striker.

And now, Arsenal have become dependent on it. We’ve been blessed to have Giroud fit and firing for most of this season and last, but it’s also made us strategically lazy. With Podolski starting up top, the rest of the team didn’t seem to know how to play it.

The Arsenal team have been fed a steady diet of Olivier Giroud for 18 months, and it appears to have significantly altered their palette. Give them Luis Suarez, and they’d probably he aiming balls at his head and chest, wondering why he couldn’t bring them down.

Giroud is not just integral to our attacking shape. He practically is the attacking shape.

Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction changed the game not because he is a better player than Lukas Podolski, but because he is a better impersonator of Olivier Giroud.

This all has implications for any proposed transfer activity this January…
With Bendtner now injured, Wenger may be a little more likely to dip in to the market. If he does, it must be for a striker with similar attributes to Giroud.  This current Arsenal team look unsuited to playing with any other kind of striker. Someone with a different style would require a period of adaptation, and given the intensity of this title race I’m not sure that’s something we can afford.

Diego Costa would be ideal, but the chances of him leaving Athletico Madrid in pre-season are slim.

Many will baulk at the suggestion, but Arsene Wenger needs to find another Emmanuel Adebayor.

In January (yes, January) of 2006, Arsene Wenger plucked the little-known Adebayor from the subs bench at Monaco. He went on to become a 30 goal, £25m striker. It’s time to ask Arsene to pull another such rabbit from his extraordinary hat.

When Emmanuel Adebayor was being left out of the Tottenham squad week-on-week by Andre Villas Boas, I privately wondered if Arsene Wenger would ever consider a short-term move for the former Arsenal man. Note: privately – I knew such a suggestion would invite ridicule and abuse if made public. It’s off the table now, and would probably have never happened: Adebayor simply carries too much baggage. However, there’s no doubt that physically and technically, he has all the attributes we require.

Arsenal need someone with size, strength, good close control, and ideally a bit of speed. Someone who can play the Giroud role, but perhaps with their own unique spin. An extra trick, or yard of pace.

Over to you, Arsene. Surprise me.

Arsene’s subs corrected his erroneous starting XI…
Introducing Rosicky and Bendtner was effectively an admission of the issues with the initial team. Fielding both Flamini and Arteta was unnnecessarily cautious, whilst Podolski’s problems have been covered above. As soon as the pair came on, Arsenal looked more effective.

In the second half, Theo Walcott was absolutely outstanding…
Walcott occasionally takes stick for shirking responsibility, but I thought he really took this game by the scruff of the neck. His crossing was quite superb, and Per Mertesacker probably ought to have scored from two of his most enticing balls. According to Squawka, he created six goalscoring opportunities against Cardiff – his highest tally in any game thus far.

He also has six goals this season, from just 10 starts.

Wingers, by their nature, are a bit infuriating to watch. They deal in fine margins – quite literally, given their proximity to the touchline. Considering that, Walcott’s efficiency and continued productivity is quite remarkable.

It’s almost impossible not to be pleased for Bendtner…
Everyone loves a redemptive hero, and there’s no doubt that his could be a hugely significant goal in our title bid. It’s unfortunate that he was injured in scoring, but I suspect his ego might have enjoyed the pseudo-martyrdom of sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
Rather enjoyably, he has now scored more goals from open play in this season’s Premier League than Tottenham’s £26m man Roberto Soldado.

All eyes on the FA Cup…
…and a mouth-watering game against Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. With a tricky tie against Bayern in the Champions League, the FA Cup now represents our second-best chance of a trophy in 2013/14. Maybe the best. The season we’re having deserves silverware. We ought to give this competition absolute focus.

Not 1-1 at Newcastle (again)

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Big points…
Apart from in the Emirates Cup, all wins are worth three points. Some, however, feel a bit special. Maybe it’s because the win put us back on top, maybe it’s because we were under the cosh for so long, or maybe it’s just because it’s Christmas, but these points feel significant.

I’ll dip in to my big bag of cliches to state that these are the sort of games that eventual champions win. Six points away from home inside three days is an impressive feat. With matches against strugglers Cardiff, Villa, Fulham and Palace to come before the end of January, we have a great chance to build up a head of steam in the league.

Games that promise goals seem to rarely deliver…
Newcastle had scored in 15 of their last 16. Arsenal are Arsenal. It seemed for all the world that there were goals lurking in them there hills.

However, this was a game of few opportunities. Rosicky and Cazorla buzzed around but with little tangible end product. Tempting as it is to pin the blame on our plucky playmakers, Newcastle also deserve credit for some resilient defending.

Arsenal missed Ozil & Ramsey…
Of course they did. They’ve been our most creative players this season. Against Newcastle, we mustered just 11 attempts on goal. Against West Ham, with Ozil and Ramsey in action, we clocked up 29.

Giroud’s goal was invaluable for two reasons…
First and foremost, it won us the game. However, it’s also a vital goal for Giroud’s confidence. I’m not optimistic about Arsene signing a striker in January, so we need Giroud at his very best if we’re to have any chance of holding off City and Chelsea.

Theo Walcott’s technical improvement is often overlooked…
Theo takes a lot of stick for his failure to apply himself defensively and an occasional lack of composure. However, his technique really has come on leaps and bounds. I remember when I didn’t trust him to control the ball, let alone kick it cleanly. However, in this game he delivered a wonderful whipped free-kick to create the winning goal. Once upon a time, I would not have believed he was capable of anything even as seemingly simple as that. Arsene Wenger is right: never put limits on a player’s potential.

Per Mertesacker was a true giant…
I love seeing Mertesacker with the captain’s armband. For me, he is the team’s true leader, and he truly led by example at St. James’ Park with a dominating defensive display.
His performance against Newcastle really cemented his transformation from giant mutant bambi to defensive rock. The Toon threw everything at us, but Mertesacker resisted, making a phenomenal 16 clearances along the way.

Arsene’s decision to switch to a back five was a big gamble…
With 10 minutes to play, Wenger withdrew Theo Walcott and put on Carl Jenkinson, shifting Bacary Sagna inside as a third central defender.
With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like a wise move. With Sagna, Koscielny and Mertesacker all in the middle, Arsenal were well-placed to deal with Newcastle’s aerial onslaught.
However, at the time the move made me anxious: in substituting Walcott, we lost our main threat on the counter-attack and essentially surrendered the momentum to Newcastle, inviting pressure. Fortunately, we now seem to have a defence capable of coping with that kind of siege warfare.
The gamble paid off. That, I expect, is why Arsene is the manager and not me. Also, I’m pretty busy with all the blogging.

It’s a matter of time until Wojciech Szczesny gets caught out…
On this occasion, his attempted clearance struck Loic Remy in the face but bounced just wide of the goal.
It seems to happen in every other game, and yet Szczesny is yet to have been punished. What we really need is for him to make a calamitous, Artur Boruc-style error when we’re already out of sight. That’ll give him the wake-up call he needs without costing us any points.

2013 has been a pretty good year for Arsenal…
No side won more Premier League points than us. Unfortunately, titles are won between August and May rather than January and December, but it’s a great testament to our consistency.
Long may it continue.